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The vaccine for Polio undoubtedly saved millions of lives and changed the world as people knew it. Let's begin with the history of all of this, so you can see what made this vaccine so very important, for health AND social reasons. Jonas Salk was instrumental to creating the vaccine, but there were many that helped him.

What was going on?

By the period of the Great Depression, Polio was probably one of the most dreaded and feared diseases known. The disease would strike fast, and there was no cure for it. It crippled most of it's victims for the rest of their lives. Many people suffered from the disease every year and could be seen struggling with crutches, in wheelchairs, or lying inside giant iron lungs. No one even knew how polio was transmitted for many years, so entire towns were sometimes put under quarantine when someone there would come down with the disease. However, in 1953 Jonas Salk's invention of the polio vaccine went into use and cases of the disease in the Western world began to drop rapidly.

The virus only paralysed roughly one percent of those it infected, but that is not to say it was benign. The danger was that it could be transmitted quite easily under certain conditions. In fact, many of the infections would be asymptomatic, which scared people even more. One percent may seem low, but one percent of all kids in a big city can translate into thousands of cases every year.

What other kind of social effects were there?

The impact on people's emotions and the economy was staggering. The 1940s and early 1950s were the worst decades for breakouts of the disease, and even more so in the summers. As a result, kids would be kept at home and away from public gatherings (especially pools) and sometimes parents wouldn't even let their children out of their own yards. Physical fatigue and stress were named as things that made people more vulnerable, so parents would also try to keep their kids from playing too hard.

As in any public panic, a lot of misinformation was spread about what would or wouldn't keep you from getting polio. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in the United States tried to keep people from panicking about the disease, but they couldn't always be successful. Perhaps the only comparable situation was the fear surrounding AIDS toward the end of the twentieth century. Unfortunately for parents, stress makes one more susceptible to the disease. Parents would worry about their kids and then get the disease themselves. They may have thought thought they had a cold or a bug and would keep working until they were so sick they'd have to be hospitalized.

Well, lets get on to the vaccine, already!

Jonas Salk met Dr. Maurice Brodie, who was already experimenting with possible polio vaccines. Salk started working on the research as well and became head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School in 1947. By 1952 he felt that he had a vaccine that could safely get rid of polio. He started inoculating volunteers (such as himself, his wife, and their three boys) with a shot made from the killed virus and it worked. Everyone who got vaccinated produced antibodies, but no one got sick . In 1953 he published the results in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Soon after, testing was carried out across the nation.

The human trials of the vaccine Salk created were complete by 1955. The Journal of the American Medical Association announced that the new vaccine was a success, namely that the polio vaccination would effectively protect a subject from infection by the virus. Jonas Salk was made into a national hero and was considered by some to have worked a miracle. He refused to patent his work because he wanted there to be cheap mass treatment rather than a profit for himself. Later, Albert Sabin worked off of Salk's research and came up with a vaccine that could be taken orally, and Thomas Francis directed the mass vaccination of schoolchildren in the 1960s.

Black, Kathryn. In The Shadow of Polio: A Personal and Social History. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1996.

World Health Organization. Background, The Disease and Virus.
Available World Wide Web: http://www.polioeradication.org/vaccines/polioeradication/all/background/dis ease.asp

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